For pianist Jeremy Denk, Ligeti’s Études have been a kind of musical calling card. On tour, he has paired the Hungarian composer’s revolutionary studies in virtuosic pianism with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, while Denk’s latest recording presents Books I and II of the Études as bookends to Beethoven’s final piano sonata. The musical juxtapositions have been inspired, as each of the works explores, in their own way, the possibilities of the keyboard and aspires toward—and achieves—a sense of infinitude.

Jeremy Denk © Samantha West
Jeremy Denk
© Samantha West

Denk’s programming is characteristic of his cerebral and intellectually daring approach to the piano, which combines a profound structural understanding of music with an extroverted virtuosic style. On Wednesday evening at the University of Maryland’s Gildenhorn Recital Hall, Denk offered Ligeti’s Études with a new pairing: the first book of Brahms’ Paganini Variations and the Klavierstücke Op. 118. On paper, the program seemed like another inspired juxtaposition, presenting two supreme virtuoso challenges (Brahms’ fiendishly difficult variations were themselves originally published as studies) with six of Brahms’ poetic late works. Yet while Denk’s brilliant and inspired performance of the Ligeti was one for the ages, he did not bring the same level of musical insight to the Brahms, falling short of profundity.

On the first half of the program, Book I and Book II of Ligeti’s Études (minus no. 14) showcased Denk’s musicianship at its best. When faced with Ligeti’s daunting technical challenges, many pianists are forced to make a trade-off between precision and the speed required to bring off the overall effect of each piece. Denk is the rare artist who, with one notable exception, is able to respect Ligeti’s tempo markings while also illuminating the complex intricacies of the composer’s organized chaos. Denk revealed both the overall architecture of the études and inner detail of the passagework with stunning clarity, while also delivering on sheer virtuosic excitement.

Ligeti’s first étude, “Désordre”, is a study in accent shifting, creating the semblance of chaos amid a strict organizational scheme. Against the backdrop of a steady, elemental rhythm, the left and right hands begin to drift apart, with the irregular distribution of accents creating what Ligeti calls “illusory pattern deformations.” Compared with Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s acclaimed recording, Denk brought out more of the cross-accents essential to Ligeti’s polyrhythmic writing, while also maintaining a vigorous tempo.

Denk likewise captured the essential character of most of the thirteen études he played. In two of Ligeti’s more introspective studies, “Cordes vides” and “Arc-en-ciel”, Denk sustained a delicate, atmospheric beauty, building tension as textures became thicker before releasing it, as the writing thinned out and quietly died away. Denk accentuated the pointillist aspect of “Touches bloquées”, a piece that calls for the pianist to silently depress certain keys while playing a fast chromatic line in the other hand, creating a seemingly chaotic, but once again highly organized, stuttering effect. For sheer virtuosity, most impressive were two études from Book II. In “Vertige”, Denk exhibited a masterly control over line to create a thrilling sense of vertigo out of overlapping cascades of descending chromatic scales. And his pianism in “L’Escalier du Diable”, which throws up innumerable virtuosic challenges, was nothing short of breathtaking.

Denk’s one misstep came in “Der Zauberlehrling”, in which he took a relatively cautious tempo and overly accentuated the melody, failing to achieve the illusion of continuous sound that Ligeti calls for. The only other disappointment in the Ligeti came from the overly resonant acoustics of the recital hall, which lent certain passages, like the opening of “Désordre”, an opacity not evident in Denk’s live recording from Aspen in 2011.

After the scintillating heights of the Ligeti, the Brahms proved less successful. Denk opened the second half of the recital with an uneven performance of the Klavierstücke Op. 118, several of which suffered from thick, bass-heavy textures and less than precise playing. Some of his interpretations also seemed to reflect Ligeti back onto to Brahms, with Denk creating messy pointillist effects in the Intermezzo in F minor, getting lost in inner detail in the F major Romance, and finding strange echoes of “Arc-en-ciel” in the opening of the Intermezzo in E flat minor, taken at a very slow tempo. Yet with its unaffected lyricism and golden tone, the A major Intermezzo emerged as one of the highlights of this, or any other, evening.

In a recent post on Twitter, Denk commented that he felt “like I was just having sex with Brahms in my apartment for the last four hours. I need a shower and a hot lunch.” One could easily imagine, in a manner of speaking, Denk’s remarks coming on the heels of a marathon session with the Paganini Variations. At times, Denk’s performance of the ferociously challenging studies emphasized athleticism over musicianship, sounding noticeably effortful and sacrificing insight for virtuosity. The playing was bold, sweeping, and exciting but also often opaque and in need of more cool control. Still, there were many moments to savor, such as the way Denk’s lilting take on Paganini’s main theme returned in the playful glissandi of Variation 13.